NASA`s GRAIL mission solves mystery of moon`s uneven gravity
Washington: NASA`s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission has uncovered the origin of massive invisible regions that make the moon`s gravity uneven, a phenomenon that affects the operations of lunar-orbiting spacecraft.
Because of GRAIL`s findings, spacecraft on missions to other celestial bodies can navigate with greater precision in the future.
GRAIL`s twin spacecraft studied the internal structure and composition of the moon in unprecedented detail for nine months. They pinpointed the locations of large, dense regions called mass concentrations, or mascons, which are characterized by strong gravitational pull. Mascons lurk beneath the lunar surface and cannot be seen by normal optical cameras.
GRAIL scientists found the mascons by combining the gravity data from GRAIL with sophisticated computer models of large asteroid impacts and known detail about the geologic evolution of the impact craters.
"GRAIL data confirm that lunar mascons were generated when large asteroids or comets impacted the ancient moon, when its interior was much hotter than it is now," said Jay Melosh, a GRAIL co-investigator at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., and lead author of the paper.
"We believe the data from GRAIL show how the moon`s light crust and dense mantle combined with the shock of a large impact to create the distinctive pattern of density anomalies that we recognize as mascons," he asserted.
The origin of lunar mascons has been a mystery in planetary science since their discovery in 1968 by a team at NASA`s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. Researchers generally agree mascons resulted from ancient impacts billions of years ago. It was not clear until now how much of the unseen excess mass resulted from lava filling the crater or iron-rich mantle upwelling to the crust.
"Knowing about mascons means we finally are beginning to understand the geologic consequences of large impacts. Our planet suffered similar impacts in its distant past, and understanding mascons may teach us more about the ancient Earth, perhaps about how plate tectonics got started and what created the first ore deposits," Melosh said.
This new understanding of lunar mascons also is expected to influence planetary geology well beyond that of Earth and our nearest celestial neighbor.
The findings are published in the May 30 edition of the journal Science.
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